Remember airports? Those springboards to the sun, thresholds of business, scenes of corridor dashes and marital meltdowns. While we may have missed their presence—or enjoyed their absence—in our lives this year, the German photographer Tom Hegen has taken a different perspective to produce a fascinating new monograph of aerial shots taken across Germany’s suddenly silent airports. “Usually, you see airports from a much lower point of view,” he notes, “and in a much more stressful way.”
With some 70 per cent fewer flights in the air globally, Hegen looked to the vast sections of the airports that were closed and used as parking lots for aircraft: “Airplanes, once a symbol of freedom, had become the symbol of a standstill in the spring of 2020.”
In Aerial Observations on Airports, he examines these sites—in Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Düsseldorf—with an eye for geometry. “The view from above shows the very autonomous, graphic, and almost illustrative quality of airports,” he observes. Having previously taken aerial pictures from small aircraft, travelling over the Arctic, Spanish farmland and the Namib desert, this time Hegen used helicopters, flying between 400 and 600 metres high, guiding the pilot via a headset.
Talking to me from his photography and graphic design studio in Munich, Hegen recalls the challenges of shooting from a helicopter, buffered by the cold air from the rotor blades, one foot propped precariously on the skid. “For me a helicopter is more like a tripod in the air,” he says. “The side door is removed so I have a clear view down to the ground. This makes it very stressful. It’s such a harsh environment. It’s not the best environment to take super detailed photographs.”
It was, tangentially, a pandemic project. Hegen presents the ant hill minus the ants. “Aviation is the central engine of globalisation. At the hubs of international air travel, goods are traded and deals made,” he writes in his introduction. “The slots on overfilled runways are closely and precisely timed. This intense networking of the world has, however, also led to diseases spreading faster than ever before.” Airports have fast-tracked Covid-19.
“It is super hard to get permission to fly in a helicopter over huge airports,” he says. But with restrictions lifted in lockdown, the project was suddenly viable. The helicopter pilots were intrigued. A Lufthansa pilot in Frankfurt said that he suddenly saw his airport in a different, more contemplative, light.
In his previous work, Hegen has captured the elegance of sand dunes, reefs, craters and glaciers, in compositions that often feature the intrusion of people (developers, industrialists, swimmers). Here, however, his photographs deliver abstract, and figureless, arrangements of stencilled numbers and letters and bold coloured lines—all delivering coded information to pilots and ground crew—set against the graphite background of tarmac. Wheel-marks swirl and loop like Cy Twombly’s pencil work, coloured grids echo Mondrian’s configurations, control towers and blocks sit like pieces of uncompromising Bauhaus furniture.
We don’t think of airports as being beautiful in the way we do railway stations (the Parisians even turned their glorious Beaux Arts terminal into the Musée d’Orsay). This is, in part, due to the 20th-century fashion for functionalist line over ornate curlicue, sans-serif over the serif, metal over stone. Buildings can be less attractive when they are utilitarian. But, seen from above, these terminals often possess the symmetrical elegance of snowflakes. And the planes that pepper the ground look like dance partners, albeit with some a little tighter on their marks than others.
The palette of German signage is limited to red and yellow, a rather jolly Lego-like colour scheme that feels simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary. But there are visiting hues—easyJet orange, RyanAir blue, the pink wingtip of a maverick Cessna. Just who decides on this aesthetic remains a mystery. Are planners adhering to a corporate design? “I assume so because in Germany everything is run by guidelines,” Hegen retorts. Apart from one huge sign for Berlin airport, the pictures give little away as to the individual locations. Hegen adds to the anonymity by not captioning his pictures. Uniformity—natürlich—is key.
“When you’re a guest in an airport you think it’s such a mess. Such chaos, so many people. Hopefully your luggage will arrive at the right destination,” says Hegen. “But then when you see it from this vertical perspective you see that there’s so much thought behind it.” A bit of distance can be enlightening (I particularly liked the caravans of redundant luggage wagons that trail around like ducklings).
Airports hold an appropriately transient place in culture. They are a plot cog in numerous novels—not least Arthur Hailey’s Airport—but, considering that they have existed for more than a century, they have had little impact on the visual arts. The exception being the work of the Italian Futurists who, in the early 20th century, seized on aviation as a dynamic example of progress. The result was a gallery of sometimes prophetic, sometimes scary, images of flight. They called it “aeropainting”. Tullio Crali created canvases dizzy with propellors and parachutists while Guglielmo Sansoni, known as Tato, painted vertiginous views of the ground as seen from above. At the dawn of the movement, before the First World War, the Lombardian architect Antonio Sant’Elia drew up plans for an entire Città Nuova, a brave new metropolis that included an airport perched on top of railway tracks.
In 1976, Hergé conceived an idea for his final Tintin book, in which the entire story would be set in an international airport. This chamber piece, thought Hergé, would show how the whole world—“tragedies, jokes, exoticism and adventure”—was condensed in an airport. The book was never completed. Steven Spielberg, a great admirer of Hergé, directed a variation on the theme with his 2004 comedy-drama The Terminal.
In the field of photography, meanwhile, airports have always been more a setting than a subject. Most prominently, they have been the hunting ground of the paparazzi. During the golden age of Hollywood, when Pan Am was Uber to the stars, celebrity snappers caught a dazzling cast hanging around the concourse and the check-in desks: Marilyn Monroe, wrapped in furs at LaGuardia, the Beatles grabbing a coffee between flights in Stockholm, Audrey Hepburn walking her Yorkshire terrier to the plane at Rome’s Ciampino Airport. Everyone is smiling. Today, it’s a scrum. In 2015, Los Angeles International Airport proposed a special celebrity arrivals lounge to stop stars being hassled by feral hordes of photographers.
In art photography, Andreas Gursky has created panoramas of runways and departure gates at Hong Kong, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf. And, for his 1994 work Schiphol, he shot through the windows of the Amsterdam airport out towards a hazy horizon for a photographic twist on the tradition of Dutch landscape painting.
In his foreword to Aerial Observations on Airports, Alain de Botton suggests that Hegen’s photographs envisage “a world in which people might not fly at all”. He suggests that the events of 2020 offer us pause for thought. De Botton imagines a time when red-eye flights and passenger queues, hangars and landing strips, could all become the stuff of fireside legends, with airports turned into galleries and home-owners on flight-paths finally getting a good night’s sleep. He quotes an ancient Arabic proverb about the soul travelling at the speed of a camel.
The wishful thinking of a philosopher, perhaps, but de Botton has a point: our love affair with aviation has soured. “How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us,” he writes. “We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth.”
Hegen sees something altogether more abstract in these places. “It’s such a graphical world. I was really surprised at how everything is in order, there are so many lines and signs.” At the new Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport he was confronted with a crisp high-definition muse. “It was supposed to open eight or ten years ago and it just opened two weeks ago. The lines were very fresh, they were really saturated and popping out. In airports that were much older they had vanished already.”
He sees his work as an exploration of the intersection between humans and their surroundings, specifically: “how we interfere with nature, how we extract resources out of it and how we change the surface of our planet”. His photographs are an amalgamation of documentary work and exercises in graphic design. But, while the aesthetic is rigidly geometric, Hegen’s subject matter touches on the fluidity of social, industrial and political forces.
“I do all of this to tell stories about how we deal with the environment,” he says. “And with this lockdown series it is the same. I usually focus on landscapes where humans interfere with nature but this time it’s the other way around, nature is interfering with our daily life.”
“Aerial Observations on Airports” by Tom Hegen, with a foreword by Alain de Botton, is published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, €54.00